Fight Club hit theaters ten years ago today. The film was critically divisive, struggled with the right marketing, and had a lukewarm run at the box office. But then came the overstuffed two-disc Special Edition DVD, complete with a fake-cardboard slipcase. It was exactly the right kind of gorgeously overproduced fetish object demanded by the burgeoning DVD zeitgeist. Right in time for the ascendance of internet geek culture, Fight Club invented a whole new artistic species – the mass-marketed cult film.
Passed along from friend to friend in a DVD case that looked like a box of anthrax, it was the HD masterpiece for the home theater decade, and its influence can be felt all over the modern movie landscape. It’s worth taking a look at how the style and content of the film influenced the first decade of the new millennium.
The Neon Grunge style: The look of Fight Club is simultaneously bleached out and richly colorful. Characters hang around monochromatic tavern cellars and underlit city streets and a mansion which looks like a steampunk haunted frat house, but bright swaths of color decorate the screen, and the people themselves seem almost to glow. That’s especially true of Brad Pitt, who, as the charismatic Tyler Durden, walks around with a spotlight trained on his lipstick-rouge leather jacket. The film feels a little bit like Vincente Minnelli making a horror film based on an American Apparel advertisement.
That lusciously scuzzy aesthetic has since become the de facto Hollywood blockbuster visual style. You can see it in high-contrast, color-saturated blitzkriegs like Terminator Salvation and Quantum of Solace, every Michael Bay movie since Bad Boys 2, every Harry Potter movie since Prisoner of Azkaban, and every gorgeously grime-laden Saw clone. You can see remnants of Fight Club three times a week on the CSI trifecta, with the harsh crime scene lighting playing off the psychedelic glow of Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. Oliver Stone, David Lynch, and Michael Mann blazed the trail, but it took David Fincher to give that style an addictive swagger, and American movies have never really looked the same.
The Fighting Men: Tyler Durden offers all kinds of cultish soliloquies on the state of modern culture, and lines like this one stick out: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” This is also someone who has a sex scene so explicit it needed to be digitally animated. The weird combination of hyper-macho misogyny and anxious self-loathing seems to directly predict Judd Apatow movies and the rise of torture porn. Don’t forget: the only real woman in Fight Club is Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla, the rare drugged-out floozy who’s also a damsel in distress. That’s two female stereotypes, for the price of one!
Fight Club predated a decade which would see Hollywood steadily move away from trying to present women onscreen; sometimes officially, more often just by churning out a steady stream of superhero films with the perfunctory lame girlfriend role. Fight Club tackles this new guy-on-guy world head-on. There shouldn’t be any question in your mind that Ed Norton’s character loves Tyler Durden, even though (SPOILER ALERT) that becomes a bit less homoerotic and more narcissistic after the third-act twist reveals that he actually is Tyler Durden.
You could argue that Fight Club is actually a hilarious rebuke of post-feminist misogyny, since Ed Norton’s character ends up opposing his Durden self, but part of the film’s brilliance is how indecisive it really is about itself. Fight Club morphs into Project Mayhem, a Weatherman-esque band of skinhead anarchists, their anti-establishment shenanigans (Let’s blow up a café!) are treated with all the serious sobriety of a Roadrunner cartoon. The film was the alleged inspiration of a total idiot who tried to bomb a Starbucks in an attempt. You could say he missed the point, or you could say that Fight Club has no point.
The DVD era is over, or at least evolving; it’s all Blu-Ray or digital downloads from here on out. But Fight Club still feels as vivid, addictive, dangerous, morally despicable, and utterly hilarious as it did the day it was released. If you’re looking for everything great and terrible about the 21st century so far, look no further – Fight Club invented it all.